The New York City Council Just Revolted Against the Feds, and They’re Not the First


For years now, local police departments have been playing an increasingly pivotal role in enforcing federal immigration laws.

Whether they’re being effectively deputized as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, under the 287(g) program, or offering up local jails as deportation clearing houses through the Secure Communities program, a decade-long trend has seen cops ever more involved in enforcing immigration laws.

But in the past few years, there’s been something of an uprising going on. Los Angeles, Chicago, and hundreds of other jurisdictions have begun to push back on the federal government’s attempts to make local cops into an extension of ICE. The New York City Council took its own major step in that direction on Wednesday, passing a law sharply curtailing the circumstances under which the NYPD and local jails will honor “immigration detainers,” requests from the federal government to hold a suspect already in police custody.

The criticisms of immigration detainers are many. To begin with, immigration violations fall under the civil code, and many contend it is unconstitutional to detain someone not charged with a crime. But immigration advocates also worry that commingling local police functions and immigration enforcement alienates immigrant communities from the neighborhood cops who are supposed to protect them. An undocumented immigrant who’s the victim of domestic violence, for example, might be reluctant to call the police if she or he feared deportation. The mixture also makes gathering intelligence more difficult.

That criticism is echoed even by many law enforcement groups. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has frequently spoken out about the dangers that come with federal co-option of local police, and the group formally opposed the federal SHIELD Act, which would have expanded cooperation between federal and local authorities. IACP President Joseph Estey explained it this way in Police Chief magazine:

“Many leaders in the law enforcement community have serious concerns about the chilling effect any measure of this nature would have on legal and illegal aliens reporting criminal activity or assisting police in criminal investigations. This lack of cooperation could diminish the ability of law enforcement agencies to police effectively their communities and protect the public they serve.”

The City Council’s new measure will prohibit the NYPD and the City of New York Department of Correction from cooperating with most detainer requests made by ICE. Detainers were previously used to hold a given suspect for up to 48 hours so the feds could investigate his or her case, and perhaps take the suspect into custody for immigration offenses.

Nancy Morawetz, a professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law who specializes in immigration issues, said the Council’s moves should go a long way toward addressing the problem.

“This has been a big game where the federal government has issued these detainers based on very little evidence,” Morawetz says. She doubts that local authorities have any power to detain these immigrants based on what amounts to an informal request. “It’s just become a way to shovel people into the ICE detention system.” Morawetz also pointed out, though, that authorities will still hold some individuals at the request of ICE, something she says they are neither required nor authorized to do.

Under the new rules, NYPD and corrections officials can honor detention requests only when they’re backed by a warrant, and only when the individual has been arrested for a “serious crime.” Terrorism-related crimes are among those enumerated in the new law, but the category also includes some drug felonies that exceed small-time possession, certain weapons offenses, and a range of violent crimes.

“These bills are about keeping New York families together and sending a clear message that New York is not afraid to lead on immigration,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a press release. “New York is a city that respects the constitutional rights and dignity of all residents. We also have no reason to expend scarce resources assisting in enforcing broken immigration laws.”

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